Keeping Patriots fans fired up

Members of the End Zone Militia, all of whom are war re-enactors in good standing for at least three years, don't get paid and they buy their own costumes and gunpowder. But they have a great view. AP Photo/Winslow Townson

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Their uniforms aren't uniform. They stand behind the end zones at Gillette Stadium, their jackets a medley of tans, browns, blues and even a singular salmon. Some have matching knee breeches, but most don't.

Some wear feathers in their tricorn hats. Some wear packs on their backs. Some carry canteens and snap sacks, while some accent their outfits only with cartridge holders.

Except for the officers, they all carry muskets.

They are doctors, blacksmiths and gentleman farmers. They are also software engineers, pharmacists and full-time re-enactors.

They have a better view of the field than you do, at least until the action crosses the 50-yard line going away from them. Then they do what you do: Watch the video board.

After all, the men and women of the End Zone Militia are football fans too.

Wes Welker dives into the end zone for the New England Patriots' first touchdown of the season. The fans in the stands erupt. As Welker's teammates slap him on the helmet in celebration, the unofficial mascots prepare to perform their own salute.

They're not looking at Welker, or at his teammates reveling in the new, 6-0 lead.

They're looking down at the flintlocks on their muskets, making sure the black gunpowder is tamped in nicely and pouring the rest of the cartridge down the barrel.

An officer steps in front of the line in the north end zone, facing it. He's wearing a tricorn hat with three jaunty feathers, a beige jacket and breeches, and he's carrying a cavalry pike.

"Make ready!" he calls, raising his pike to punctuate the command.

The militia members raise their muskets to shoulder height, and hold.

"Present!" he calls, cocking the pike and pausing.

The militia members raise the muskets above the shoulder and sight down the barrel.

"Fire!" he shouts, in one motion turning toward the field, ducking and bringing the pike slashing down parallel to the field turf. The militia members fire over him, the guns startlingly loud and belching sour-smelling smoke. A cloud of dark gray smoke wafts off on the wind, and the militia members lower their firearms and begin to reload.

The special teams are on the field, lining up for the extra point. While Stephen Gostkowski steps off his approach to the ball, the militia members are ripping open paper gunpowder cartridges with their teeth, priming the muskets for the next volley, which will come after a successful kick.

Spent paper cartridges litter the ground at their feet.

Geoff Campbell, captain of the End Zone Militia and a re-enactor since 1975, is not your average militia member.

"I'm a rare bird because these are my work clothes as well," Campbell said, gesturing to his colonial clothes as he stood behind the militia line in the north end zone during the Patriots' home opener.

Unlike most members of the militia, Campbell, 54, makes ends meet as a full-time re-enactor, giving tours on the Freedom Trail in Boston. He teaches anyone who'll listen about the way things were in the Revolutionary War days.

Game days are no different.

The members of the militia tailgate before most home games, just like regular fans. Well, minus the alcohol ("We are dealing with firearms, after all," Campbell said) and plus the unusual clothes. Their presence often brews curiosity among their fellow tailgaters.

"If I had a nickel for every picture I had to pose for, I'd be a very rich man" Campbell joked.

All the photo ops take time, but the militia members don't mind.

"I don't know any other group of football fans who gets to do what we do," Campbell said. "I mean, we're not Pat Patriot, but we're kind of mascots."

Unlike Pat Patriot, the official mascot in the oversized suit, the End Zone Militia doesn't get paid and has no official affiliation with the team. It's just a like-minded group of people who want to give the fans a taste of New England's history … and who want to get into the stadium for free.

So, how does one sign up for such duty?

"People ask to join all the time," Campbell said. "There is a waiting list of over 20 at present, and basically I fill a slot if someone moves away, drops out, or dies."

Well, then.

There are about 40 members of the End Zone Militia -- including part-timers and substitutes -- all re-enactors in good standing for at least three years with an established re-enactment group. They live in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire. They have day jobs like anyone else: shipping manager for a software company, pharmacist and software engineer, among others.

For a typical Patriots game, there are between 22 and 24 minutemen suited up, half behind each end zone. That number's been greatly helped by Gillette Stadium itself. In 1998, the early days of the End Zone Militia (so early, in fact, that the group hadn't even acquired that moniker yet; former Patriots lineman turned radio personality Pete Brock supplied the name in 2000), Campbell & Co. could find room for only six militiamen on the cramped sidelines of the former Schaefer/Foxboro Stadium.

And then only if they brought folding stools, so that when they weren't firing their muskets they could be out of the sight lines of fans. After all, the End Zone Militia exists to add to the experience, not take away from it.

"I think the best part is having an impression upon the fans and helping them enjoy their experience," said Todd Boothroyd, a nine-year EZM member. "A lot of fans like to revel that none of the other teams have a unit like us on the field, so we are unique."

Not everyone's a fan of the boys (and girls) in beige, blue and salmon.

For the 2009 season, the End Zone Militia was asked to fire a volley during Patriots kickoffs. The team would play AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" leading up to the kick, and the militia members would fire on "Thunderstruck."

Call it adding a kick (and a whiff of acrid smoke) to the kickoffs.

Problem was, not everyone got a kick out of it. According to Campbell, when the Atlanta Falcons visited in Week 3, the volley during a kickoff reportedly startled the opposing kick returner. Falcons owner Arthur Blank complained to the league office, and word came down from on high: No more added thunder during "Thunderstruck."

"The Falcons said it ruined their concentration," militia member Dan Grillo said. "Well, what happened to home-field advantage?"

That was not the first time the militia had to change its firing pattern.

Originally, when the Patriots scored, the militia in both end zones would fire a volley. But, on one particularly windless game day in the 2003 season, they found out that that might not be such a great idea.

The Patriots scored, the militia fired its volley and Adam Vinatieri, bothered by the smoke sitting obstinately over the end zone, missed the extra point.

That time, the End Zone Militia didn't need word to come down from on high. From then on, only the line in the off end zone would fire after a touchdown, and then both lines would fire after a successful extra point.

Vinatieri didn't miss another extra point the rest of the 2003 season.

Though the End Zone Militia members clearly revel in their duties, it's not all fun and firearms.

"We don't mind the sun, we don't mind the cold, we don't mind the snow, but we definitely do not like rain," Boothroyd said. "It really makes it difficult for us to fire the muskets."

Because muskets are powder weapons, wet conditions wreak havoc on them. That's probably why you don't read about many Revolutionary War battles being fought in the rain, and any you do read about probably heavily involve the words "fix bayonets" and "charge."

There's another reason the EZM members dislike the rain: They have to stand in it for four or five hours.

Sure, their uniforms are made of natural fibers such as wool, which naturally deflects some moisture, but if it's raining, they're probably soaking. Which makes the task of standing still for hours on end a little more wearisome.

Grillo will be 60 in a couple of weeks. For him, all the standing is the hardest part.

"It takes its toll on the knees and feet and the back," he said.

The militia members can take a break at halftime -- some of them sit during intermission on the cement wall that stretches from the north end zone toward the lighthouse -- but the rest of the time, from pregame introductions to the final whistle, they'll be standing in their lines.

The only other time the militia members break ranks is if they get a call from Mother Nature.

"If you need to go, just go," Campbell said, gesturing toward the tunnel under the stands off the north end zone. "It's just like taking a casualty during a re-enactment. If someone goes down, you close ranks and keep going.

"If someone has to go to the men's or ladies' room, you close ranks and keep going."

And the casualty just has to hope he or she doesn't miss too much of the action waiting in line.

One of the big costs of re-enacting is the costume, and the End Zone Militia members each foot their own bill.

"Everything they're wearing, they own," Campbell said, pointing toward the militia arrayed in its Revolutionary War finery. "They either make it themselves, or order it from companies that supply us."

There are many such companies. There are also local tailors and seamstresses who can custom make items for the more particular minuteman (or woman). Of course, that kind of service doesn't come cheap.

"I have a jacket at home that cost me $475," Campbell said, "in 1992."

Boothroyd, who portrays a British officer in his normal re-enactment group, estimates his two British uniforms each cost about $1,500. Most of the re-enactors have built up their uniforms over time -- a jacket here, a waistcoat there, maybe a pair of breeches here -- but the price tags add up all the same.

Could they get away with lower-quality, less-authentic gear? Sure. Most people wouldn't know the difference. But these men and women are serious about history, and they're not shy when it comes to each other's colonial clothing.

"It's one of the rare hobbies when guys will come up to you and say, 'I love that fabric. Where'd you find it?'" Campbell said, rubbing my shirtsleeve between his fingers demonstratively.

So serious re-enactors don't cut corners when it comes to their cloth, some going so far as to send overseas for material that will fade more accurately when exposed to light.

And then there's the gunpowder.

Boothroyd says he buys his black powder for $19 a pound. In a normal game, most militia members will go through about three-quarters of a pound. But sometimes, when the Patriots get on a roll, it can be much more than that.

"In the 2007 season, we were going through a pound and a half of gunpowder per game," Boothroyd said.

The Patriots' scoring in that record-shattering season got to the point where it was too much. Some of the End Zone Militia members ran out of powder and had to go up and down the line looking for spare cartridges.

"It was costing us a small fortune," said Boothroyd, who estimated he spent close to $25 per game on gunpowder in the '07 season. "And we have no gripes about [spending the extra money] that year."

In fact, if you're asking for gripes from members of the End Zone Militia, you're asking the wrong people.

Though the hobby is expensive and the Patriots don't pay them anything, the payoff still far outweighs the out-of-pocket cost.

They get to watch games from the field, occasionally bumping elbows or exchanging high-fives with their favorite Patriots. They get to razz opposing players -- from warning Chad Ochocinco not to attempt to fire one of their muskets if he scored to playfully mocking Peyton Manning for one of his commercials -- and add a historically accurate flavor to the fans' experience.

They've even been featured in commercials, including one for Visa and another for Olympia Sports.

After all, the men and women of the End Zone Militia would still spend their hard-earned cash on colonial stockings, gaiters, breeches and the like even if they didn't get to attend Patriots games (among others, including New England Revolution games and the occasional Red Sox or Brockton Rox game).

Grillo's a good example. He's always loved history and got into re-enacting 24 years ago after a trip to the Sudbury colonial fair. In his normal re-enacting, he portrays a surgeon.

He's also a lifelong football fan. He says he remembers watching the Giants and Colts play in the 1958 NFL championship game. He was 7. Like many native New Englanders, Grillo grew up a Giants fan, adopted the Patriots when they arrived on the scene and still feels his allegiances slightly torn when the two teams meet on the field.

For him, the End Zone Militia combines the best of both worlds … and adds in some other perks too.

"Guns, football and seminaked cheerleaders," he said. "It don't get no better than this."

For New England football fans, it doesn't.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.